When Sudbury native and current professional squash player Mike McCue reached a competitive stage in his career more than a decade ago, needing to expand the scale of his opponents, he found himself travelling with regularity to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Following somewhat in his footsteps, 17 year old Charles de la Riva Jr recently reached a similar crossroad, though his journey would venture a fair bit further south. The eldest of three boys in the family, de la Riva recently returned home from a squash related sojourn that would see the talented teen spend more than four months in Mexico, spending time with the Salazar family, a highly prominent name in those parts with this sport.
What led him to the lands of tequila and piñatas is a rather interesting tale for a family that, while always athletic, had no real ties to squash over the years.
“I was nine years old when I started playing,” he said. “I started at the YMCA. I was doing a little bit of squash, a little gymnastics, a little bit of swimming, and I liked squash the most, so I just kept playing.” Spending some time working with local coach Brian Clarke, de la Riva developed a certain affinity for the court game, in part based on a comfort level he enjoyed with a very similar pastime.
“When we played badminton at school, I always seemed to do well,” he stated. “The footwork is important. Moving around the court, whether it’s squash or tennis or something, good players are light on their feet and move well. If you don’t move well, you won’t be able to reach the ball or the birdie, and then you won’t have rallies.”
His first real step forward in squash would come about six years ago, approached at the time about possibly participating as part of a regional entry to the Ontario Winter Games. “My dad asked me if I wanted to be part of the team, but I had to practice a lot harder and come out a lot, just to not get completely demolished at that event,” de la Riva said with a laugh. “I started playing and putting a lot more time into it.”
The stars were beginning to align. With the entire de la Riva family enjoying a growing interest in squash, and already benefitting from a huge affiliation with their Spanish descendancy via their paternal grand-father, long-time city councilor Ricardo de la Riva, the local clan found a natural fit with the annual PSA (Professional Squash Association) Tour stop in Sudbury each April.
Serving as a billet family, mostly with the Salazar brothers (twins Cesar and Arturo), Charles developed friendships that would eventually lead to he and his siblings spending some time, in recent years, over the holidays, in Mexico, guests of the same folks they welcomed into their homes in Sudbury each spring.
His most recent trek, however, was extended much longer. “It all happened so quickly,” said de la Riva Jr. “One week, I was going there for a bit, during the summer. The next thing I knew, it was until the end of November.”
Wanting to test the boundaries of his squash potential, de la Riva would find a fit in San Luis Potosi (Mexico) that was every bit as natural and as helpful as the one that McCue would grow, several years earlier, in the Toronto marketplace.
“Training at altitude, 2500 metres above sea level, was extremely helpful,” said de la Riva. “I knew right off the bat that the first week or so I was there, it was going to be really, really hard to get used to that. But when I left there, I felt stronger and fitter and faster.”
In addition to his daily training sessions, four to five hours in length, split between the daytime and evening, de la Riva would also find time to compete. In fact, his success at the Selectivo Mexicano National Juventil 2017 (what is essentially their national junior open tournament in Mexico), a second place finish, provided some additional confidence for similar events in both Canada and the United States, shortly after his return to Sudbury at the end of November.
A tad unlucky, de la Riva would draw the second overall seed in his opening round of the Canadian competition, learning to play to his strengths in the process. “I switched things up at the US Open and it went a lot better,” he suggested. “At the Canadians, I tried to shorten the rallies, but at the US, the competition there is so much tougher, I just tried to keep the rallies going.”
“The longer matches and my physical conditioning came into play. That’s probably would I should have been doing at the Canadians.” Part of the 128 player field that was battling it out on the campus of Yale University in New Haven (Connecticut) in December, de la Riva dropped his opening match to American Ian Blatchford.
Knocked into the consolation draw, the grade 12 student of Ecole Secondaire catholique du Sacré Coeur (de la Riva had to transfer from College Notre-Dame in order to accommodate the correspondence requirements of his studies with his extended time away from home) bested Julio Yaselga from Ecuador in straight sets before surviving a five set classic with Ryan Kelly of Ireland.
“I think I was controlling those games extremely well, especially my match with Kelly,” he said. “I wasn’t really tired, even in the fifth set, which means that Mexico paid off.” An eventual three set loss to Englishman Josh Owen, who advanced to the consolation semi-finals, only strengthened the resolve with which de la Riva would return to further improve his game.
“I need to be a little bit more consistent with my hitting, hit my target to the front,” he said. “None of those shots to the middle, or hitting the side wall to the middle – that’s not good.”
Not good, in Canada, in Mexico, or anywhere else, for that matter.